Margaret Bonds (1913-1972)
Simon Bore the Cross (1965)
Janinah Burnett (soprano), Dashon Burton (bass-baritone)
The Dessoff Choirs and Orchestra/Malcolm J. Merriweather
rec. 2022, Church of the Heavenly Rest, Manhattan, New York
Avie Records AV2589 
Until I received this disc for review I had not heard any music by the American composer Margaret Bonds. As an African-American female composer trying to forge a creative path for herself in the USA from the 30’s right through to her death in 1972 aged 59 she encountered significant levels of prejudice based on gender and race. At high school she was taught by Florence Price, whose own music is in a process of active re-evaluation, and the two remained friends and professional colleagues for the rest of their lives. There are shared elements, but also considerable differences between the two composers’ work. While both integrated their heritage into their music, it strikes me that Bonds’ is more explicitly socio-political. In part this is due to the fact that – according to the liner – over 90% of Bonds’ music is settings of texts, many of which either mine the culture of her ancestors setting Spirituals or else use contemporary poems by black writers which celebrate the culture of her people.
This is the case with both of the substantial choral works offered on this disc which date from the last decade of Bonds’ life. Both take nominally Christian texts/narratives but experience these from the perspective of the black community. Opening the disc is the 23:36 Credo. Although this opens with the “standard” I believe in God as its first line thereafter the text written by W.E.B. DuBois very clearly celebrates the achievements of the black race. In a letter quoted in the liner to her long-time friend and collaborator Langston Hughes (the lyricist for the other work on this disc Simon Bore the Cross) Bonds wrote; “It is a great mission to tell Negroes how great they are.” Bonds’ musical idiom is strongly influenced by the melodic shape and harmony of Spiritual and in the second movement; Especially Do I believe in the Negro Race the use of flattened leading note harmonies gives the music an effective “bluesy” feel. Additionally, in this movement soprano Janinah Burnett makes the first of three vibrant and dramatic contributions across the two works. Her music is written is an explicitly spiritual style which Burnett sings with ringing authority soaring up to a secure D-flat right at the end of this movement. A second soloist – bass-baritone Dashon Burton – makes contributions to both works as well. He has a big, burly voice that is again well-suited to the idiom of this music. Both soloists sing with clarity and fervour. Throughout the passion and pride in the work and indeed this performance is not in doubt.
What is harder to judge – certainly if you are not part of the community for whom this was written and to celebrate – is just how ‘good’ this is musically once stripped of its context and message. I understand that quite how one defines ‘good’ is fraught with problems and that music can have great emotional impact and engagement using the simplest techniques. But in this instance the message is so integral to the pieces that objective evaluation of the craft at work here is harder to achieve. The work is given in its orchestral version which according to the liner Bonds never lived to hear. It is played by The Dessoff Orchestra which I imagine is a scratch orchestra put together for this recording to accompany the Dessoff Choirs who sing with fervour and dynamism throughout. The orchestra is quite small with a 18.104.22.168.1 string strength alongside double wind, two each of horns and trumpets, three trombones, tuba, two percussion and harp. To be honest the orchestral writing is rather prosaic – lush harmonies for sure and attractive melodic writing but the orchestration is very generic and functional. The parts are perfectly well-played but the actual recording in the resonant if not booming acoustic of The Church of Heavenly Rest in Manhattan is reasonable although the choir(s) are better caught than the orchestra. The youthful sounding choir is actually very good indeed singing with good ensemble and attack but also sensitivity when required. The recording was made for/by the choir and licensed to Avie for distribution – certainly I usually associate this label with more sophisticated recordings in technical terms.
But the power of both pieces lies in the message rather than the music alone. I can imagine the second work – Simon Bore the Cross – being popular amongst choral societies of every country and continent. This is written for organ, strings and harp alongside the choir and is a substantial work in eight sections running just shy of 40 minutes. This tells the story of the crucifixion from Jesus’ trial through to his death and in a Postlude, the Resurrection. For the text Bonds turned to Langston Hughes who was the source and guiding influence for many of her works. In the fourth and fifth sections; Who is that man? And Don’t you know, Mary? Langston explicitly underlines the belief that Simon of Cyrene [a city in Northern Africa] was black – the latter movement includes the text; “black men will share the pain of the cross, black men will share the pain, in a world… that’s filled with trials and troubles.” The following Walkin’ to Calvary has rather moving echoes of the meditative chorales in the great Bach settings of the Passions with Burnett joining the chorus to touchingly sing; “Thank you, brother Simon, Thank you for helping brother Jesus”. This culminates in penultimate movement The Cruxifixion a powerful setting of an existing Spiritual. Here and throughout the work the organ makes a rather thunderous but impressive contribution and the simpler instrumentation of strings and harp alone alongside the organ works rather well.
Whilst the influence of popular music in general and spirituals in particular is very evident there is something in the vocal writing; lyrical lush and grateful to sing that brought to mind John Rutter’s style of communicative composing. In essence this is not complex music but neither does it intend to be – it carries an extra-musical message that is best conveyed in direct, intelligible and engaging music. Again the committed singing of the Dessoff choirs adds to the overall impact of the work. The liner lists conductor Malcolm J. Merriweather as having edited and arranged Simon Bore the Cross but there is no further elaboration as to exactly what or how much he had to do to bring the work to the performance we hear here. But again it is a good indication of the level of engagement and belief in this music by the performers.
Given the relative unfamiliarity of both composer and music, it would have been useful if the liner contained more extended essays on both. Full texts in English only are provided along with the usual artist biographies and performer lists of both choirs and orchestra. Overall this is an impressive presentation of two major scores by a composer who is gradually becoming recognised for her contribution to both the field of music and social equality – the liner quotes a letter from Bonds to Langston Hughes; “Together Simon Bore the Cross and Credo encourage all to embrace the true concept of Brotherhood toward people of color throughout the world”.
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